Ricardo Bofill: “Why Are Historical Towns More Beautiful Than Modern Cities?”
To the uninitiated, Ricardo Bofill might come across as something of a chameleon. Comparing the post-modernism of his projects in Paris of the 1980s, his recent glass-and-steel towers, and the stark stoicism of his own home and studio which he renovated in the 1980s, one would be forgiven for thinking that there is no consistent thread present throughout his work. However, as Bofill reveals in this interview from Vladimir Belogolovsky's “City of Ideas” series, his designs are actually rooted in concepts of regionalism and process which, while recently popular with the architectural community at large, have underpinned his architectural mind since his twenties.
Vladimir Belogolovsky:Your office, a former cement factory, La Fabrica, built back in late 19th century here in Barcelona is fascinating. Would you say it is a manifesto project and is it a work in progress for you or is it finished?
Ricardo Bofill: No, this is not a manifesto. This place is my home. I have lived and worked here for over 40 years. It is not finished and it will never be finished. I think architecture can never be finished. It always needs more work. We started this project by doing demolition, destruction, and deconstruction work first. I loved this place when I first discovered it because it was never planned or designed. Instead, it developed over many years, expanding and rebuilding every time new technology was introduced. It was an homage to industry. The factory reminded me of vernacular architecture. It was industrial vernacular that attracted me. Also there were so many surreal moments such as stairs and bridges going nowhere and arches and porticos in the most unexpected places… I started with a very romantic idea to bring nature into this industrial place. There are plants everywhere. There is a whole ecological layer planted on top of the original industrial complex.
VB:The reason I suggested that this place might be a work in progress is because this conversion from factory to your home and office is very eclectic with elements from industrial architecture, Brutalism, Spanish vernacular, as well as Surrealism and Post-Modernism.
RB: Sure, but what you call Post-Modern elements are in fact historicist. They all came before Post-Modernism. My idea at the time was to recuperate some of the elements from historical Catalan architecture such as elongated arched windows from medieval times in Barcelona. And you know, every time I travel to such places as traditional towns in Japan or a desert in the Middle East, or Italy, I bring some of those influences back here and you can trace many such references. These memories are very important to me.
VB:So you keep transforming this place over time.
RB: Constantly. As you said, it is a work in progress. And it will always be a work in progress, absolutely. And I like the space itself here. It is very raw and clean, there is almost nothing decorative here. It is a world within itself. Nothing is really designed here. What I had in mind when I was transforming this place was a monastery, as a perfect place for concentration. From here, I started more than 1,000 projects.
VB:I read that you employ here not only architects and designers but also mathematicians, musicians, poets, filmmakers, philosophers, sociologists... Could you talk about this interdisciplinary approach to architecture?
RB: Architecture is a professional discipline. Fundamentally and artistically, architecture is about space and the relationship between time and space. Architecture needs to have a relation to the genius loci of every place. In other words, to its spirit and DNA. Architecture cannot be translated from one place to another. Architecture should be specific to every place. So what I try to do with this multidisciplinary approach is always to invent new projects, new styles. I want to reinvent myself. I don’t want to copy myself or repeat endlessly certain shapes, like some other architects… I want to adapt to local conditions and traditions. Architecture needs to be open to other disciplines. Architecture can’t be isolated. And since all other disciplines evolve, architecture should maintain a close relation to them to evolve as well.
VB:What was your first project?
RB: I was still a student, just 18, studying architecture at the School of Fine Arts in Geneva, Switzerland. My real passion ignited when I discovered the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto. I related to organic architecture, buildings that integrated with nature, buildings that didn’t have any facades; the facades expressed the complexities within buildings.
My father was an architect and developer, and I first learned about architecture and construction from him. We traveled together throughout Spain and to Italy to study vernacular architecture and all my first projects we did together. I learned everything from him and I was directly involved in building projects. I worked with builders and artisans, and many things I did with my own hands. I was also influenced by various utopian ideas, so early on my work was on the border between utopia and reality.
My first project was a small holiday house in Ibiza, a very organic house with thick curving walls and small windows that captured the genius loci. Then I did projects in Barcelona, France, Algeria, Central Africa, and so many other places… In Russia, India, China, Japan, the United States… And in every place my architecture is different and related to the place. What I learned from these very different experiences is that architecture cannot be translated from one place to another.
VB:Let’s go back to the time when you joined your father’s practice in the early 1960s and started working on many experimental residential projects. At that time, you said you didn’t like Le Corbusierbecause of his preprogrammed universal cities. You built your own prototypes such as Barrio Gaudí in Reus Tarragona (1968), La Muralla Rojain Alicante (1973), and Walden-7 (1975) here right outside of your office. With these projects, you were exploring Spanish vernacular and critical regionalism, correct? Were these early projects your reaction to Modernism?
RB: Well, I always said that Corbu was the one architect who killed the city. He had a total disregard for history. He hated the city. He wanted to divide the city, segregate it into zones for living, working, commerce, and so on. He thought of cities and buildings as machines. My views were always the opposite. Every city is a much more complex place, a conflicting, contradicting, and corrupt place. Cities need to be repaired and cured, not demolished and built from scratch. Cities started 10,000 years ago, but for Le Corbusier history did not exist. His manifestos looked only forward. But it is clear that people prefer to live in historical centers, not in new cities. I try to find alternatives to simplistic Modernism by bringing back the spirit of the Mediterranean town.
VB:Speaking of Walden-7 and other early experimental projects you said that every one of your projects was different because you did not want to produce simply “beautiful” architecture, but experimented with process. Could you elaborate on that?
RB: I like the kind of architecture that is simple, based on natural forms, and built of noble but not expensive materials. I don’t like excess, luxury, rich forms and materials. I like minimalist and sensual architecture. Architecture is all about the process. Methodology is the key component of the creative process. There is no fixed method. Every project should have its own method. Some projects are based on preconceived ideas, while others are all based on the process. It is important to have engines inside of yourself to provoke change and provoke evolution. To be unsatisfied and critical of your own work is very important to keep this internal engine constantly running. As far as my early works in the 1960s and 1970s they were very interesting in their own right, but when I was faced with a much bigger scale of a whole city such as in France or in other parts of the world those early projects were no longer relevant. Again, many architects repeat themselves, they are not critical of their work; they continue pursuing the same project all over the world. They develop a style. They don’t evolve. I don’t like satisfied people. I prefer to be critical with myself.
VB:You said that you were one of the pioneers of Post-Modernism. But once Post-Modernism became established and became a style you were no longer interested. Is that right?
RB: You are exactly right. At the time, we did not know the name of this movement, but the idea that I had was to recover some of the historical elements of architecture, the tradition that was cut off in the 1920s and 1930s. Then architecture became tabula rasa. History became forbidden. Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were followed blindly all over the world. So this turn to history was welcomed. But when Post-Modernism became accepted and popular in the United States and worldwide it also became a style. And with time it became ironic and even vulgar. Once it became a movement, I was no longer interested.
VB:You prefer to call the work you have done in the 1980s modern classicism, as opposed to Post-Modernism. Why is that?
RB: Post-Modernism became popular after the 1980 Venice Biennale and for a while, we were all very enthusiastic about it. But soon I realized that I was really interested in modern architecture as far as such aspects as efficiency and minimalist treatment. But I was also very interested in Classical architecture and I wanted to combine these interests. I wasn’t interested in neoclassicism, which is about applying academic rules of classical architecture, which is repetitive and boring. So I was trying to combine the best of Modernism and the best of Classical styles. I still like classical architecture. I like its notions of sequence of spaces, system of proportions, its strive for perfection, even if it is never achievable. Still, this is architecture of culture that fights architecture of barbarians, architecture without rules, architecture of chaos and deconstruction. I like architecture that gives a sense of tranquility and serenity. But today I try to avoid following any particular style. I am not inspired by classical vocabulary, just its spirit. Instead, we incorporate new technology, ecology, and our own history to write architecture like a novelist would write a book.
VB:Are you still an idealist? When you think of the future of the city what kind of urbanism and architecture do you imagine?
RB: Yes, the whole world is being urbanized at an incredible speed and new mega cities are popping up everywhere. But the qualities we need to be concerned with are what we like our old cities for: being compact, pedestrian, sustainable, ecological, efficient as far as waste management, and so on. But all of these should be local solutions. There should be no global solutions.
VB:What projects are you working on now?
RB: We are working on many projects now, such as the Barcelona Football Club stadium remodeling competition [editor's note: since this interview was conducted, the competition was won by Nikken Sekkei], a new residential building in Miami, new towers in Asia, new towns in Africa… And we are working on a new city in China. It will be ten million square meters city for 200,000 people in the Southern part of China.
VB:That is a huge project…
RB: And very very complicated, as you can imagine…
VB:But wait a minute, you have become a Le Corbusier of China!
RB: No, no, no, no… [Laughs]. No, because we believe in a very different approach, a very distinctive, integrated, and personal way of design. I am not designing this city from start to finish. We are proposing the masterplan, the process, many different elements of the process. I proposed my vision for this city but there are many nuances in how it is being planned. I am not proposing one preconceived image with a particular typology of buildings. It is not like, here is the line and everyone should be inside this line. No. For example, Barcelona can serve as a great model for a new city. Here we have a strong masterplan but at the same time every 20 meters, we have very distinctive buildings. Urban vision and good architecture work well here. Urbanists from all over the world come here to learn from Barcelona. We have incredible variation within continuity.
VB:In the 60s and 70s there was a fierce battle between a new generation of architects and modernist ideas of Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies, and other grand masters. Who do you think won this battle and is it still important? Because as you said, the current state of confusion is probably bigger than ever. It is only natural for young architects to fight against the older generation but what we have now is a fight against each other. There are so many voices.
RB: Yes, so many architects are fighting each other except us. We are good friends with all of them. [Laughs.] Architecture has become extremely competitive. Autonomous thinking is being lost. The ideology is often replaced by the clients’ requirements. It is replaced with fashion and the star system. It is hard now for young architects. We need to refocus. We need to focus on urban design. There are many distinctive and interesting architectural objects. But it is not enough to put together all these objects to make a lively city. This is a new challenge – to come up with a new urban vision and address architecture’s relation to nature and changing climate.
VB:It seems that now we have more problems and more questions than in the 1960s.